“But I went into the humanities for the $$$!”*

*No, I didn’t.

It would appear as though the problem that haunts the halls of modern academia (which is to say that adjuncts are taking over the academy while being paid poverty wages) is riding the heels of journalism too.

Since I’ve started working at the CPI, I’ve signed up for some of the bajillions of emails that the journalism industry sends out to itself each day. I get headlines from the American Press Institute, the Pew Research Center, and Neiman Lab in my inbox every morning (or, in Neiman Lab’s case, every afternoon. Get on it Neiman Lab!). They’re all pretty good, if highly repetitious, and underscore the fact that journalism is the only industry more interested in navel-gazing than academia.

When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, the prize for local reporting went to three reporters from the Torrance, Ca.-based Daily Breeze. And, shortly after the winners were made public, there was an onslaught of articles (many from those email list-generators) about one of those writers, Rob Kuznia, who, after 15 years in the business, left the Daily Breeze last August for a better-paying job in PR.

“I was able to pay the rent. But I wasn’t able to save anything. A house was a pipe dream,” Kuznia said. “It’s the kind of thing that if I was in my 20s I would have been okay with, but I was approaching 40, so it was scary.”

Scary indeed.

It seems like this what teaching and journalism have become – a place where recent graduates (20-somethings in journalism, 30-somethings in academia) can muck about for a few years before things get “serious” (i.e. marriage and children) and it’s time to actually be an adult (i.e. leave those scrawny fields for some “greener” pastures). Because, if you stick around in these industries and don’t “make it” (i.e. get a tenure-track teaching position or some well-paying position at BuzzFeed), the options become pretty bleak.

margaret maryTake, for example, this NPR article about Margaret Mary Vojtko, the 83-year-old who died penniless and nearly homeless after 25 years of part-time teaching at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Vojtko had cancer and “very high medical bills,” according to Daniel Kovalik, senior counsel to the Steelworkers Union, with whom Duquesne’s adjuncts were trying to organize. She earned $10,000 a year and had no benefits, and was overwhelmed with both debt and doubt: Duquesne, like most schools, renewed her contact annually and it was never guaranteed. Vojtko was probably also only teaching two to three classes a year. At $2,500 to $5,000 per course (and you are paid per course), most adjuncts make between $20,000 (if you’re only working 50 or so hours a week) and $40,000 a year (if you’re really busting ass). That’s a low wage lifestyle without added benefits and no guarantees that your job will be back next semester. It’s terrifying.

Now Vojtko is the exception rather than the rule. But that’s not to say that her story isn’t illustrative. And it’s not to say that there aren’t a whole lot of other Margaret Mary Vojtkos out there, both teaching in our classrooms and writing our news stories.

But the way I see it is that Vojtko and Kuznia as two sides of the same coin. Kuznia bailed out of journalism when things got too rough, even though, after he left, he was awarded one of the most prestigious prizes for his work. His award is essentially a postmortem to the end of his career, even though he claims he would reconsider journalism jobs if they could support his family. Meanwhile, Vojtko stuck with it, dedicating her whole life to teaching, and died penniless and destitute because of her choice. Could Vojtko have pulled a Kuznia and bailed out when things got rough? And could Kuznia have been the next Vojtko, struggling – and perhaps even dying – from dedication to his career?

I think Vojtko and Kuznia are closer than we think. They represent what happens when people from the humanities struggle and suffer in an economy that doesn’t adequately remunerate what we do. As undervalued actors in a global society, they represent two of the more extreme choices humanities scholars have to make: should we bail out, or stay? And what are the costs of either choice, or both?

Writing, teaching, reporting, living the life of the mind and defending culture and the “truth” – these are the things that initially attracted me, and most of the people I know, to the humanities in the first place. Journalists stay in journalism because it’s a “calling.” That’s also the reason most people teach. And yet, due to “fluctuations in the market” and the “changing nature of the industry,” it’s also the reason why we’ve allowed writers and teachers and professors and journalists to be some of the people who are getting screwed the hardest by the changes taking place in newsrooms and classrooms across the country.

My husband was a journalist when we came back from Africa and were living in the D.C. area. He was thrilled to find the job – it was 2008 and he was thrilled to find anything – but he was especially excited to write about arts and culture. He was not terribly excited when they offered him his starting salary, however: $30,000 a year (though that came with benefits, so he had it better than most adjuncts). He convinced the paper to up it to $35k (no small feat) and off he went, driving down to southern Maryland from Takoma Park every day, piling over 50,000 miles on our old Hyundai Elantra. And why? Because that’s what he was: a journalist, and a proud one. So proud that he was willingly underpaid. For a guy with a bachelor’s degree from a good school and years of experience, even in 2008 it was hard to get $35k. That’s small-town journalism for you.

He did this for four promotion-less years, until he realized that it just wasn’t sustainable. Now he still writes – he’s a speechwriter for the Secretary of Transportation – but he isn’t in journalism. And it’s precisely because of his career change that we’re now able to begin discussing things like buying a house and having a baby – things that would have been impossible when he was a journalist and I was a grad student.

Dickson is just like Rob Kuznia. He abandoned journalism when he realized that he needed to (and, yes, that he wanted to) live a life that was more economically sustainable. And why the hell not? Why wouldn’t someone in their mid-30s be interested in being self-sufficient and pursuing the markers of functional adulthood that not-mooching-off-your-parents bring?

So why do we continue to allow universities to be bloated with administrators while paying adjuncts poverty-level wages? And why do we claim to be interested in the news when Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists have to abandon the field to go into PR so they can afford to buy a home? Just because people feel a “calling” to enter into a field doesn’t mean that they should be punished for their decisions. The same holds true for teachers at the pre-college level, social workers, health care aids, and police and firefighters.

And yet, for as much news as Kuznia and Vojtko generate, very little is being done to actually solve the problem. Journalism is still a “sinking ship.” Myriad commentators continue to warn against getting a humanities Ph.D. And people like Dickson – who was really a good journalist! – and me – who taught my own class once and the students didn’t riot! – are going to keep leaving the field, probably at an even faster pace, if we can’t make lives out of this that don’t leave us dying in the damn streets.

If you get a Pulitzer and still bail, you’d think people would start to reconsider what was happening to the state of American journalism, and why. And if an 83-year-old dies destitute for her “love of teaching,” you’d think universities would open their hearts. But are they? Well, not yet. Maybe they will, and that’ll be the subject of another article I read in an email from Neiman Lab or the American Press Institute. In fact, I look forward to that day.

But until then, it’s your call, Industry, and your future too. Use us or lose us. Because once we’re gone, like Kuznia and Vojtko, we’re really gone. And that waste of human talent is huge.

Washington Post article up!

It took a while (two and a half months) for it to see the light of day, but the article I wrote about D.C. parent activists and their opinions on the city’s new legalization law is finally LIVE. You can access it here.

I love the pics – they’re fascinating. Both Vonneva Pettigrew and Joyce Nalepka offered the Post photos of themselves during their heyday, and they’re amazing. I’ve never seen them before. I’m copying and posting them here, because I LOVE Vonneva’s Louis Vuitton clutch.

Joyce Nalepka (left), Vonneva Pettigrew (center), and an unidentified (but supremely stylish) woman at an NFP luncheon in the 1980s. Note Pettigrew's LV clutch! Girl had style!

Joyce Nalepka (left), Vonneva Pettigrew (center), and an unidentified (but supremely stylish) woman at an NFP luncheon in the 1980s. Note Pettigrew’s LV clutch. Amazing.

Screenshot 2015-04-17 14.27.35

Vonneva Pettigrew (center) talks with First Lady Nancy Reagan at the White House in the 1980s.

That’s really the issue though, isn’t it? No one really has full access to everything these women did. When I was talking to Nalepka in February she told me that she had over half a million pages of material in her home office – that’s an archive in and of itself. But she and her husband are moving soon and who knows what will happen to all that stuff. I’m hoping to get over there and see it, but it’s always a matter of time.

Overall I’m pretty happy with the article. It’s not the complete story, but it can’t be – not in 2,000 words. There’s always so much that goes unmentioned, that’s elided. And some of the language is a bit more fluffy than I’d like, but my editor said it had to fit the tone of the Style section, so there wasn’t much I could do about that. Still, I hope the women like it. I feel I portrayed them fairly, and even though I voted for legalization, I can see where they’re coming from. The D.C. law is full of holes, and the people who opposed it have as much of a right to have their story told as those who supported it. After all, they’re not trying to Andy Harris the thing – Vonneva just wants D.C. residents to be educated about pot’s effects. What’s so wrong with that?

 

Just Say Yes: What to Make of the Marijuana Memoir

Maybe it was only a matter of time.

just say yesIn recent months, the New York Times has ramped up its coverage of marijuana, covering everything from how Colorado’s marijuana taxes may have to be returned to residents, to Obama’s trip to Jamaica, to op-ed essays like this one, simply called “How I Buy Weed.” The writer, 68-year-old Catherine Hiller, is the author of the forthcoming book Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir, that will be published – as if the puns weren’t already laid on thick enough – on April 20, or 4/20.

Sigh.

Yesterday Hiller was featured in another profile piece in the NYT, and while I find her book’s rather obvious title and clichéd release date somewhat tiring, I’m interested in what Hiller represents and in what she has to say. She seems to recognize the social and racial disparities that make it acceptable for her to be featured in two articles about her illegal drug use, and she knows that it’s because of her position as a middle-aged white woman that she’s allowed to publicly admit, and even to celebrate, her daily marijuana use, without facing any immediate legal ramifications.

Catherine Hiller

In response to a critic who said that Hiller’s marijuana use is evidence of her living in a “cocoon of white privilege,” Hiller defended her position by arguing, “Maybe I won’t get stopped. But I wrote this not because of my privilege, but because I think it’s absurd that anyone would get stopped for this. Whatever I can do to legalize it, I will.”

I think this is indicative of the larger shift that’s taking place around marijuana use. The strength of the argument for legalization is being reinforced by a growing acceptance of white middle-class marijuana use, especially among aging baby boomers. While black marijuana use continues to be demonized (see the horrendous comments on this right-wing article about the levels of THC in Michael Brown’s body when he was killed by officer Darren Wilson last August), white marijuana use is seen as either titillating and fun or shockingly banal, depending on who’s writing about it.

Lately, white pot use is seen as pushing the envelope. It’s become exciting, even artistic, for viewers to look inside the lives of regular pot users, as though white smokers were some kind of exotic beast and High Maintenance was a kind of osprey cam, with everyone milling around to see what might happen next. Emily Nussbaum, in The New Yorker, called the web series “luxurious and twisty and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling.” And, in the same magazine, Nick Paumgarten praised the pot-smoking ladies of Broad City as embodying “the freedom, debauchery, ineptitude, and fellowship that people, particularly young women, must give up, or at least hide from view, in order to function as adults.” Portraying women smoking pot, eating pizza and having sex was, for Paumgarten, nothing less than “sneak-attack feminism.”

Hiller seems to be tapping into this feeling – the idea that there is a sense of liberation inherent in “coming out of the cannabis closet,” if you’re white enough and middle-class enough to do so without fear. She’s even started her own website, www.marijuanamemoir.com, that is less about the author or her book than it is, as the site puts it, “a place for your weed memories and reminiscences. It’s for those who have ever enjoyed lighting up and would like to share their stories.”

(So far only a few people have. Under the suggested topics of “The First Time I Got High,” “My Most Memorable High,” “Close Encounters with the Law,” “Scoring,” and, somewhat amusingly, “Everything Else,” there are only four or five entries apiece at most.)

But Hiller’s book isn’t totally without meaning or utility. What she represents is someone who has consistently used marijuana for over fifty years and who hasn’t, as she put it, “hit rock bottom.” “My story is the the story of so many people who use each day,” she says. “And so what? What’s the issue? What will it lead to?” Her celebratory, even emancipatory tone makes me feel like there’s a Twitter campaign around the corner, with a hashtag like #stillsmokin popping up on self-promoting tweets (“Smoked for twenty years and I’m still employed!!! #stillsmokin”) in the same way #blacklivesmatter or #yesallwomen digitally gathered activists around a cause.

Life-Magazine-1969-10-31It also reminds me of the late 1960s, when white smoking became so banal that it was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine on October 31, 1969. “At least 12 million Americans have now tried it,” the cover read. “Should it be legalized?”

Obviously that never happened, though the widespread decriminalization laws that swept the country from 1973 to 1978 occurred almost exclusively because the face of marijuana was painted a pale shade of lily white. And now the same thing is happening again: if history is any guide, the whitening, and subsequent banalization, of marijuana use will generally lead to greater acceptance of the drug, reflected primarily in state laws.

And now, with her new memoir (which, yes, I am planning to read), Hiller may be the movement’s new face. She’s not using marijuana for any medical cause: “I just like the feeling,” she says. And her desire to use her book and website to liberate “secret smokers” may not be far off. Because of the overwhelming layers of race and class privilege that correspond to her drug use, Hiller as the new face of marijuana reform will probably lead to far more changes in laws than the faces of, say, Snoop Dogg or Michael Brown.

Hiller sees her movement as comparable to the drive for gay marriage. “It’s hard for people to change their mind-set after so many years,” she said. “But look at marriage equality and how that happened so fast. That was unheard-of five years ago. So maybe smoking pot will be completely normal, and no one will raise an eyebrow when they find out somebody smokes.”

The woman who landed a book deal from smoking marijuana wants people to stop raising an eyebrow about pot use? I highly doubt that, but perhaps.

HISTORY CHANNEL

The documentary has finally aired!

You can watch “Hooked: Illegal Drugs: Marijuana” here. It’s about 43 minutes long and, since my amazing mother-in-law actually counted, I’m in it 15 times. I even have the last word. It’s me, weirdly enough, that closes out the program. Check it out!

The coolest part was being part of a project that included people I really respect. Larry “Ratso” Sloman is an awesome guy, and his book Reefer Madness is a classic. I was also honored to be interviewed alongside investigative journalists Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian. Their book, A New Leaf, looks like a fascinating read – it’s next on my list.

A huge thank you to everyone who has supported my work so far. The book proposal is coming along, and I’ll keep this blog updated to let you know what transpires. Thanks as well to Hugo Rupert at A&E, who first invited me to participate in this project, and Brittany Shaw, who facilitated the whole thing. HISTORY CHANNEL 4EVR.

Changing the Conversation

I love Rebecca Schuman.

I love her honest, irreverent take on academia. I love how she calls out the bullshit of higher education for what it is. And I love how she tells doctoral candidates and recent PhDs to get a grip.

I wish I had found Rebecca Schuman years ago, back in my first year of graduate school, when I still held on to those silly romantic dreams that a tenured professorship was possible for me – the kind of gig we all dream of, at some bucolic campus nestled deep in the woods, where students are respectful and eager to learn and I can spend all day in my bookshelf-lined office, drinking tea, taking questions from those eager students, and generally living the glorified life of the mind.

Current Me would have loved someone like Rebecca to come along and tell Old Me the truth: that those jobs have never existed, and they most certainly don’t exist now. And, even if they do, they’re not going to be given to someone like me, who is graduating with a nontraditional degree from a second-tier institution and is thus unprepared to teach World History and unwilling to live some miserable life as an adjunct, which is the only way I could inhabit the Ivory Tower for long.

This is why I love Rebecca Schuman. For those of us who have Seen The Light and who have fled academia like we’d flee a sinking ship, we need more voices like hers.

But, despite all my love, Schuman was criticized this morning on Inside Higher Ed. She’s bitter, the writer says, and neglects to mention the perks of academic existence. She’s not taking the process of peer review seriously. And, horror of horrors, she “asserts vague commonalities without evidence.” (Good thing no one on the internet does that.)

In other words, she’s not worthy.

The author of the article, Charles Green (who is working as a lecturer – no tenure there either – at Cornell), claims that Schuman is trafficking in stereotypes, and that her unbridled, “Mean Girl” voice “treats individual perspective as universal truth.” The state of higher education is too precarious, Green says, to allow people like Schuman to point out its flaws.

(To his credit, Green also says that Schuman “could represent a useful, important resistance to the limits of the academic world” – though I would disagree that she “could” represent such a thing and argue instead that she already does.)

I find this article absurd, in the same way that I find most conversations about higher education absurd. I especially find it absurd after spending the past few days in Philadelphia at a conference for the current cohort of ACLS Public Fellows, of which I am one. We spent most of last week discussing the value of humanities PhDs in the workforce, the important roles that we can play, and how to negotiate the non-academic world. (We also got to tour the new building of the Barnes Foundation, which I can’t recommend highly enough.)

I am incredibly proud to be an ACLS Public Fellow. I believe strongly in the need for humanities PhDs to play a role in the outside world, and for us to take our skills and strengths and critical thinking into the open and apply them to numerous realms. I believe this is necessary not only because, in my belief, having a PhD in your workforce makes your office a better place, but also because there are too many PhDs and there will never be enough tenure-track teaching jobs. Ever. So stop thinking it will happen, magically, just for you.

Schuman is a voice for this. A reasonable, funny, sometimes-hyperbolic (but who cares? She’s writing for the internet. If you’re not hyperbolic no one pays attention) voice that tells the ugly truth that no one seems to want to hear.

While I love Schuman, what I also can’t understand is why this conversation gets paraded out all the time, almost never varying from the same two tracks. It’s “I want a tenure-track job so I’ll go to grad school” versus “You’ll never get a tenure-track job so avoid grad school like the plague,” and never the twain shall meet.

Jesus, people, there are a few other options out there. You don’t only have to be a professor when you get a PhD, and you don’t only have to get a PhD to become a teacher.

I hate to make this all about myself, but look at me: I have a PhD. I wrote a dissertation. I’m going to publish a book. And now I’m an engagement analyst at the Center for Public Integrity, using all those finely honed research and analysis skills I developed in grad school to make the Center a better place. Oh yeah, and I’m getting paid bank, people respect me, and I really, really like my job. (Too bad my own department won’t recognize me as a success.)

There were only 300 applicants for the 20 public fellowships the ACLS offered this year. I find this number staggeringly abysmal. Not every engineering major gets an engineering job, and lord knows not every psychology major becomes a psychologist. (This may be a good thing.) So why do we expect every humanities PhD to be guaranteed the holy grail – a tenure-track position at some excellent school where students are dedicated and committee work a joy?

This is impossible. It’s always been impossible. PhDs – whether you’re ABD or you’ve already been hooded – must recognize where else we can use our skills. We must make moves into other realms. And we must be proud of what we’re doing, where we’re going, and how we’re doing it. Academia can’t keep denying us like bastard children. We’re proud Doctors, and we’re using our degrees to succeed in the world of late capitalism. And many of us are educating just as many people as we would if we had stayed in the Ivory Tower. In fact some of us, Schuman included, are reaching even wider audiences than that.

I love Rebecca Schuman because she tells the truth, and I love the ACLS because they gave me a fellowship. Now I’d love it if the conversation could change and – finally – move away from the useless dichotomy of “to teach or not to teach.” How glad I’d be if we could focus instead on the real, necessary and practical discussions of how we can fit the several thousand PhDs who graduate every year into a workforce that can utilize and appreciate them.

Why? Because that sure ain’t happening in academia. Not anymore. And because that’s the future, and it’s not going to change. People won’t stop going to grad school, and tenure-track teaching is dying a slow death. But programs like the ACLS Public Fellows allow PhDs to move into the traditional workforce, and it gives us the platform and the skills necessary for this transition. I only wish more people would take advantage of it – and that more organizations would offer something similar. What can I say? I, like the rest of humanity, want a job where I’m respected, where my thoughts appreciated and my bank account adequately compensated. After six years of grad school stipends, it only seems fair. But widespread resistance to these ideas is mind-boggling at best, and staggeringly ill-advised at worst. If higher education keeps following its suicidal path (and it leaves few clues that it’s changing course any time soon), new jobs for PhDs will primarily come from the private sector. I am eternally grateful to have landed my fellowship at all.

But yet the conversation remains the same. For people who have spent years developing critical thinking skills and the ability to do reasoned analysis, you’d think we would have shifted the topic faster than this. In order to avoid treading the same water, hopefully we can soon.

Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed News, and the Future of Academic Writing

She couldn’t have done that in modern academia.

On July 24, 2014, Anne Helen Petersen, a former film and media studies professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, published her first long-form article on BuzzFeed News. It was a historical exposé of TMZ, the celebrity gossip powerhouse, that links its rise to digital dirty laundry dominance with a long line of celebrity gossip magazines, and to a culture that has long reveled in bringing its untouchables down to earth.

It’s a far cry from BuzzFeed’s more traditional content, which is heavy on quizzes, listicles and cats. But it’s seemingly apropos of BuzzFeed News, the more analytical, investigative sibling of the main site, and one ostensibly devoid of its LOLs, Trashys, and Fails. Whereas BuzzFeed features “The 46 Most Important Crotch Shots of All Time,” BuzzFeed News investigates the Egyptian massacre of 2013 and runs stories like “Putin’s Aid Convoy Raises Fears of a Russian Invasion Of Eastern Ukraine.”

(To be fair, BuzzFeed News also features such significantly-lesser works of “news” like “Why Is There a ‘Forrest Gump’ iPhone Game?” and “Damning Evidence that Beyoncé Is Photoshopping her Instagram Pictures.” Well stop the presses, guys: that is big.)

Even so, Petersen’s piece represents a break from even the more “highbrow” articles offered on BuzzFeed News. The language of the piece, alongside its historical analysis and its cultured critique of Americans’ strange relationship with celebrity, is academic to its core: ten years ago similar work might have appeared in scholarly journals like American Quarterly, or in edgier tomes like The Baffler or Jacobin Magazine.

But it didn’t. It was on BuzzFeed News.

And while once this article might have wasted away through the months-long editorial process of a peer-reviewed journal, it instead appeared almost instantaneously to millions via Facebook’s second most-shared platform. And because of this, the article was shared hundreds of times more, geometrically expanding its reach and generating discussion and debate among its readers online. By appearing on BuzzWorthy, Petersen’s work reached audience numbers well beyond American Quarterly’s most ambitious dreams, and allowed readers to respond immediately with their own comments and ideas. Few, if any, academic publications could replicate that.

So how did Petersen get BuzzFeed to allow her to write what is essentially an academic article on a very popular subject? And, perhaps more importantly, how will BuzzFeed continue to navigate a field that now produces academic work that is speedily consumed by an extremely popular audience who are accessing articles essentially for free?

The debate Petersen’s work highlights is hardly limited to academic publications alone. The rising threat of digital has long been discussed among major news organizations, most of which have scrambled to keep up in this rapidly changing world. In perhaps the most telling instance, a leaked copy of the New York Times’ Innovation Report from March declared that even the ever-powerful Times felt overwhelmed by the shift to a digital-first format. For nearly 90 pages, the Report laid bare the systemic problems inherent with turning the slow-moving Grey Lady into the rapid, flexible digital powerhouse it wanted to become. “The Times must be willing to experiment more in terms of how it presents its content,” the report concluded, exhorting writers and digital strategists to make a more multi-modal site – one that looked more like BuzzFeed News than a traditional front page.

Yet despite frantic calls to update how journalism is constructed and received, the workers who constitute the field look almost the same as they have for decades. They are overwhelmingly older, white and male, and the bulk of them are dissatisfied with their jobs. They feel they have less autonomy in their work, and they worry about the future of American journalism.

In response, young people, still interested in pursuing journalism as a career, are turning away from traditional institutions and are forming their own platforms to showcase their work. The examples are myriad: Ezra Klein left the Washington Post to work at Vox; Nate Silver left the New York Times to form his own FiveThirtyEight.

Now something oddly similar is beginning to happen in academics.

Tenured professors are increasingly a rarity at universities in America, while the sheer number of people graduating with a humanities Ph.D. is skyrocketing. The number of new tenure-track positions – those golden opportunities for which we are supposedly destined as we slog through years of school – is decreasing, while rates of adjunct and “non-academic” hiring has soared. This discrepancy, a product of decades of shifts in the administration of higher education, has meant that more Ph.D.s are turning to alternative careers, with websites like VersatilePhD and Beyond Academe helping newly-minted doctors navigate the non-academic world.

Petersen, who famously told the Hairpin she was leaving academia for BuzzFeed in March, is perhaps the most visible symbol of this shift. “I’ve known for some time that my work, and the sort of audience I love writing for, is not a very good fit for academia,” she said. “BuzzFeed gives me the platform and support to do the type of writing (and reach the type of audiences) that I love, but can also provide me with a living wage.”

Now Petersen hasn’t spent her entire tenure at BuzzFeed crafting feature-length investigations into the history of American smut. She’s written some pretty insipid listicles about Facebook and the pool, as well as some vapid reviews of rosé. But all of these were done in BuzzFeed’s finely honed editorial voice that moves between playful, nostalgic and revelatory. And they prove to her higher-ups that Petersen can continue to produce content as BuzzFeed funds her longer, more in-depth reviews.

“The Down and Dirty History of TMZ” thus represents a pretty stellar debut for the first seasoned academic to make the transition to full-time digital news. And this is because the article makes real scholarly claims, situating TMZ and its founder Harvey Levin into larger discussions of the cult of celebrity and the American desire to dismantle those in power.

For instance, in placing TMZ at the end of a long line of fan magazines that have wallowed in the market of “scandalization,” Petersen argues that, though TMZ has “accelerated” for the digital age, “they’re operating on the same principle and profiting off the same impulse to excavate down to the deepest, ‘truest’ level of popular figures that surround us.” Her piece is thus as much an anthropological analysis of America’s fascination with gossip as it is a history of the rise of Levin’s schmaltzy empire.

More importantly, though, the work is well done. The writing is crisp and brisk, the voice authoritative and clear. She takes a lowbrow subject and elevates it to a cultural artifact, and she makes understanding its historical location both informative and fun.

When I was working as a professor and a TA, I would have given anything to see some of my own students (or even my fellow ABDs) write like that – to examine something seemingly banal and showcase its long and complicated history, its relationship to larger American obsessions and vices, and its current role in shaping the pop culture landscape. This kind of analysis is much more difficult than it seems, and it is, or should be, of interest to several academic fields. But, as Petersen told the Hairpin, that wasn’t the work that she could do in traditional academia, at least not while she was stuck in Walla Walla. “Much of academic writing prides itself on being as inaccessible as possible,” she said. Instead, Petersen wanted to write something that “vast swaths of people actually consume.”

Her plan worked. BuzzFeed News has become a prominent and creative outlet for the kind of work Petersen wants to write, which is clearly also content that audiences want to read. Her work draws on the skills she learned while earning her doctorate, but it’s tempered by a clear understanding of her readership base. So while it may be easy to dismiss much of Petersen’s work as the same kind of schlocky pabulum that BuzzFeed has notoriously, and profitably, generated for years, there are moments where her work elevates BuzzFeed News above the fray and places it squarely in conversation with more traditional academic haunts.

It also must be noted that Petersen represents only one end of BuzzFeed News’s tactical hiring efforts as the site seeks to become an authoritative contender in the realm of “real news.” Earlier this year BuzzFeed hired Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Mark Schoofs and Chris Hamby to steel up their investigative desk. And the recent influx of millions in funding that will go primarily to new hiring and expansion means that BuzzFeed will continue to be a threat to traditional institutions for years to come.

(Full disclosure: Hamby won his Pulitzer working for the Center for Public Integrity, the D.C.-based investigative journalism organization where I am now working as an ACLS Public Fellow.)

But bringing on people like Schoofs and Hamby isn’t surprising – their new home is called BuzzFeed News after all. Bringing on Petersen represents something else. It means that a similar shift is happening in the realm of academia, in which talented, popular professors leave the Ivory Tower for the greater visibility and higher audience numbers that come with writing for the Web. It means that longform articles that walk the line between academic exposés and investigative journalism will be considered “news,” and not just published in some obscure journal as padding for a C.V. And it may mean that academics who choose to partner with digital sites (and who can succeed there) could find better pay, greater reach, more autonomy, fewer barriers, and, perhaps most importantly, a real audience for their ideas.

No one gets a humanities Ph.D. to broadcast their thoughts to an empty room. But higher education’s current over-reliance on adjuncts and lecturers is unsustainable, both for the institutions as well as for professional academics themselves. Anne Helen Petersen is the first to have gone down that rabbit hole, to have substituted traditional academia for full-time digital writing. Time will tell if hers was a sustainable choice, and if more academics will choose to follow her path. But the situation is clear. Academics, journalists, and all those who market in ideas have a real choice before them: to stay on the traditional route or veer off into the experimental extreme. Petersen’s tenure at BuzzFeed could be a glimpse into the future, proving whether or not there’s a “Definite Ranking of Nick-At-Nite Shows” or a “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls” in all our futures, or whether BuzzFeed is, like a tenure-track job in academia, just another impossible dream.